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Despite complaints and clashes, congressional ethics office is likely to survive

By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; A23

In the 33 months since it was formed, the Office of Congressional Ethics has been called unfair, unreasonable and out of control. It has clashed with the House ethics committee and made enemies in both parties.

Yet the OCE - the quasi-independent body charged with vetting allegations against lawmakers and forwarding them to the full ethics panel - is nearly certain to live to see its third birthday.

Despite some media reports to the contrary, several Republican lawmakers and aides inside and outside of the party leadership said there are no plans afoot to kill or significantly weaken the OCE.

Officially, no decisions have been made on this or any other potential House rules changes for the 112th Congress, but knowledgeable Republicans said privately they expected the office would survive intact.

The reasons are partly political, and partly practical.

With a full slate of decisions to make on revising the chamber's budget, schedule and a host of other internal matters, GOP leaders simply aren't giving much thought to changing the OCE.

"I haven't heard any conversations about that," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who will become majority whip in January.

McCarthy said it made sense to "always reassess" the way the ethics process works, but gave no indication a big revision was in the offing next month.

The theory that Republicans are plotting to kill the OCE may stem from the fact that the majority of GOP lawmakers - and all of the party's top leaders - voted against the office's creation in March 2008.

But now that the office exists, and Republicans recaptured the House with a reform-oriented message, they're not eager to start cutting back on oversight when the cases of censured Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is awaiting trial by the ethics committee, have cast a fresh spotlight on Capitol misdeeds.

"I didn't think the office should be created in the first place," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the former chairman of the ethics committee, but at this point "probably the reasonable thing to do is work with" the OCE rather than abolish it.

Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a former member of the ethics panel, formally known as the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, suggested that "there are those who would like Republicans to kill" the OCE, and that Democrats were laying "a delicious trap" for the GOP and incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio).

"I don't think Boehner's going to take the bait," LaTourette said, though he hopes there will be "an adult conversation between both parties" on improving the ethics process in the next Congress.

Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) chaired the bipartisan task force that recommended creating the OCE, and said that if Republicans "want to do tweaks" to how the office does business, the GOP should follow a similar process.

If Republicans do want to alter the OCE, they could well form another bipartisan task force to recommend changes later on in the 112th Congress.

The OCE has its defenders, particularly among government watchdog groups that credit the office with injecting life into a moribund ethics process.

This year alone, according to the OCE's statistics, the office has begun at least 69 "preliminary reviews" of potential infractions and forwarded 21 for further review by the ethics committee.

Last week, a coalition of nine groups from across the ideological spectrum released a joint statement calling the creation of the OCE "the most important improvement in the House ethics enforcement process" since the ethics committee was formed four decades ago.

Recalling the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the ethics committee's failure to probe it, the groups said there "is nothing in the recent election to indicate that citizens have any interest in going back to this failed ethics enforcement process."

The groups said the office's funding and powers should be maintained - an important point given that some critics would like to significantly weaken the OCE's charter.

In May, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) introduced a bill that would sharply reduce what information is made public about OCE's actions and require the office to receive "a sworn complaint from a citizen asserting personal knowledge" of an alleged violation before it can begin an investigation. That standard would sharply reduce the number of inquiries.

Fudge has a personal interest in the subject.

Dawn Kelly Mobley - a former House ethics committee aide who now works as Fudge's chief of staff - was personally admonished by the ethics committee in February for improperly sharing information with an outside group that was part of an ethics panel investigation into corporate funding of Caribbean trips by Congressional Black Caucus members.

Fudge did not respond to a request for comment, but the Ohio lawmaker told Mother Jones magazine last week that she was "open" to shutting down the OCE and that "all options are on the table."

Nineteen co-sponsors signed on to Fudge's bill, all fellow CBC members.

The OCE got the ball rolling on the Caribbean probe, which some CBC members have contended was unfair. A host of African American lawmakers have faced OCE scrutiny.

Some other lawmakers, including Republicans, have complained that OCE has been too aggressive and inconsistent in deciding which allegations to pursue and which to ignore.

But those critics appear to be outnumbered by the lawmakers who like the OCE or are just wary of voting to kill it.

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a close Boehner ally, said that getting rid of the OCE would be dangerous for his party.

"Politically I don't think you can do that," Simpson said. "But should we review how it's working? Yeah."

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